Sunday, January 24, 2021

We have a Choice

Turning toward the light or darkness...
CC Jean Stimmell: San Jose 2/21

Our lives seem to be fragmenting in the face of spiraling polarization and civil unrest. How do we find what’s authentic in this splintered world of wildly different truths? And what if authenticity, in the traditional sense, no longer exists?

I muse on this question as I meditate on an exquisite, little waterfall near my house. The countless, disparate rivulets within it, rushing pell-mell in every direction, remind me of the incessant deluge of information pelting down on us each day – and the multiple realities they imply.

In Mother Nature’s world, none of these individual rivulets represent the truth: it is only when they are incorporated into a whole that they become what they really are: A waterfall.  

It occurs to me that it is the same with us: We can either define our lives like a single rivulet, blocking out and opposing all who are different; or stay flexible, accessing and acknowledging all the rivulets, and then construct them into a coherent whole, as nature has done with her waterfall.

My friend and mentor, Peter Baldwin, psychologist and retired Antioch professor, likes my comparison of my waterfall with the human personality. As he asserts in his book “Four and Twenty Blackbirds,”1 the notion of a single, unchanging personality is a myth. Instead each of us have multiple personalities, some conscious, some not, each behaving much like a rivulet in the waterfall. 

These sub-personalities come to life in various guises in response to particular situations. We can see these contrasting personas play out in everyday life by observing how a person acts differently interacting with her child than her lover or differently with his big boss than with his drinking buddies.

Another example is how the holier-than-thou preacher, who by denying the existence of his sexual persona, ends up acting out his erotic urges by sleeping with members of his congregation.

Just as the waterfall integrates countless, disparate parts into a unitary whole, Professor Baldwin’s book does the same for the human personality: It is a primer on how to identify our various parts, negative as well as positive, and then integrate them into a smoothly functioning whole, a prerequisite for becoming self-actualized and fully conscious. 

Society, like the individual, is composed of ever-changing components that must work together to be successful. Robert Lifton, a psychiatrist and big-thinker, wrote a prescient book, back in 1993, on this subject: The Protean Self: Human Resilience In An Age Of Fragmentation.

In it, he writes, “we are becoming fluid and many sided. Without quite realizing it, we have been evolving a sense of self appropriate to the restlessness and flux of our time. This mode of being differs radically from that of he past, and enables us to engage in continuous exploration and personal experiment. I have named it the 'protean self' after Proteus, the Greek sea god of many forms".2

Lifton believes that the protean self's flexibility and buoyancy are essential qualities to cope with the stress of ever-quickening social change, the media revolution, and the looming threat of human extinction. He sees our protean ability to evolve as a positive development, allowing us to find meaning and form in this tumultuous age we find ourselves in.

The opposite of the protean self, according to Lifton, is the fundamental self, who, as a result of his rigid and hidebound personality, dismisses ideas or facts that might challenge his worldview.  

The fundamentalist wants to keep things the way they’ve always been: “he avoids psychological fragmentation by defending the world against evil.”3  This description brings to mind Trump and his war against immigrants, Muslims, Black-Lives- Matter, women– almost every constituency but white males who have, at least up to now,  ruled this country.

The New York Times review of Lifton’s book praises him for “not attempting to wrap up the truth in a simple package.” Instead, it says, the protean self “honors plurality and multiplicity, delighting in the partial and inconsistent meanings revealed by disparate forms and alternative ways of life.”⁠4

Looked at this way, especially after Trump, what’s not to like about having more empathy and compassion for those different from ourselves, whether they are our fellow humans or Mother Earth herself.



1 Four and Twenty Blackbirds: Personae Theory and the Understanding of Our Multiple Selves by Peter Baldwin, Ph.D : 1997

2 The Protean Self: Human Resilience  in an Age of Fragmentation by Robert Jay Lifton. Basic Books, New York, NY, page1



Monday, January 4, 2021

Covid shows once more, who’s excluded from the American Dream

Homeless Person in San Francisco
CC Jean Stimmell: 1/7/2017

The media and disease experts tell us we must take personal responsibility to avoid Covid-19!  Gov. Sununu, to no one’s surprise, has taken the same hands-off approach, choosing to treat the pandemic like we do other social ills, like poverty or homelessness, exemplifying our state motto: “Live Free or Die.”

Indeed, some individual behavior is unconscionable, like folks refusing to wear masks and kids flocking to large parties. Yet disease experts stress that responsible leadership is essential because controlling this plague is beyond individual capabilities. That’s why it is so disheartening that after almost a full year, the federal government has yet  to provide a coordinated response to establish clear guidelines to protect public health and establish policies like a national infrastructure for testing and tracing – and now, to efficiently distribute the vaccine.

Meanwhile, essential workers and lower-income folks  have no choice but to work to put food on the table and a roof over their heads.  That makes it impossible for them to comply with social distancing prodigals without financial assistance.  The federal government provided such help early on but now have scaled it back when needed most. 

Epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves proposes that the government “pay Americans to stay home if they feel sick, test positive or work for a business that should close for public  health reasons to avoid choosing between their health and their bills.”⁠1

Looking at the big picture in our country, it is clear we have over-emphasized the role of individual responsibility. It is morally indefensible to harangue people to lift themselves up by their bootstraps when they have no boots.  How do you lift yourself up without a livable wage, adequate healthcare, and sufficient education to compete for a good job.

Nicholas Kristof nailed it when he wrote: “When an infant in three counties in the United States has a shorter life expectancy than an infant in Bangladesh, that’s not because the American newborn is making “bad choices”; it’s because we as a country are.”⁠2

Many people make ‘bad choices” because of hardships and trauma, resulting from being excluded from the American Dream. Isabel Wilkerson’s highly-acclaimed, new  book, “Caste: The Origins of Our discontents,” does a masterful job of illuminating how racism has been one such major exclusionary factor baked into our national identity. 

Less talked about is how social class is an exclusionary factor. Treating people differently, depending on their status in society, is written into our original Constitution of 1789; it delegated to the states the power to set voting requirements, which, generally, limited this right only to property-owning, white males. 

Low-income folks need not apply!

Since then, we’ve passed a lot of amendments to make things more equal. While women and non-white citizens now can vote, they still face discrimination. But those who fail to support themselves remain untouchables, shunned because, it is said, they don’t try hard enough.

As a result, in an unwelcome twist of fate, we now treat our dogs better than our fellow human beings. It wasn’t always so.

Back in our more macho past, dogs were card-carrying members of the untouchable caste: if they were “bad dogs” who growled at their master or disobeyed him, they were often beat or put down –  just as blacks were in the days of slavery. Poverty-afflicted humans weren’t treated much better: they were often thrown into prison for being unable to pay their debts, and subject to a precarious lifestyle, putting them at an ever-present risk of dying from malnutrition or exposure to the elements. 

But, at least for dogs, we have seen the light. We have discovered that bad character is not baked into “bad dogs:” Rather, it is a function of a bad environment. Consequently, we now rescue tens of thousands of dogs from the south, many of whom were neglected, malnourished, abandoned, abused, or all-of-the-above.

To our surprise, we have found that giving these dogs compassionate care in a safe environment transforms formerly unruly curs into loving, loyal best friends.

The question we have to ask is, when are we going to start treating our fellow humans as well as our dogs?